A recent email reminded me of a favorite book by Will Willimon, Methodist bishop, teacher at Duke Divinity (Sorry, Tarheels), and extraordinarily gifted preacher. When Bishop Willimon lived in Durham, a neighbor asked about church, specifically about what makes the church different from other organizations. The neighbor said his own preacher had asked him to invite folks to church. The neighbor couldn’t figure out a good reason to do that. Why would he invite someone to be part of this? He had nothing against the church, but said he didn’t see anything different or special about what we do on Sunday. “Friendliness? Caring? I get all that at Rotary.”
The neighbor went on to note that the Durham Bulls, the local baseball team, had done more to bring black and white people together than the church ever thought about. “A Saturday evening at the Durham Bulls is more racially inclusive than a Sunday in any church.”
More on Willimon’s book in a minute, but I thought about it when a young, wise friend shared a link to an article that appeared last week in The Atlantic. Its title: “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes.” The article notes liturgies involved with gyms and spin classes and yoga studios. These places gather people in community, give rituals to perform, receive tithes. As more and more Americans move away from organized religion (Pew Research tells us that in 2015, 23% of adults identified as religiously unaffiliated, up from 16% in 2007), folks seek “new forms of community building, new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences.”
The author notes that gyms often mimic the form of traditional religious services. They create community. They create space apart from busy brains. They create a zone, so that fitness is a gateway to a larger, more lasting state of happiness and fulfillment. Gyms offer coaching, elevate expectations and foster accountability, something lacking in many churches. They are transformative.
A parishioner admitted to me recently that she feels more connected with folks in her yoga class than folks in church. Mind you, this is an active member of the congregation. All of it challenges us to think about Will Willimon’s neighbor, to think about what is special about church.
In response to questions asked, Willimon wrote a book called Shaped by the Bible. In the introduction, he says we are left with a question: What makes the church, your congregation and mine, different, utterly essential, without equal, unique?
(Hit pause button before you read his answer: What would you say? Would you have an answer?)
Then consider Willimon’s response: “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” He continues: “That does not mean we worship the Bible, or capture God between the pages of the Book. It means that in our life with the Bible, we are confronted by the living Lord.”
For me, the distinctive nature of the church, confronted by the Word, attempting to form its life in response to the Word, has to do with what is in the Word. As Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The Bible is a story of God’s relationship with us. It is a story of grace. It promises forgiveness, the persistent opportunity to start over. It’s a story about how love wins. Heaven knows, we need that story. You may or may not get all that at the gym or the yoga studio. But if you’re not getting it at church, church doors should close.
We live in a grace-starved world, filled with folks looking for community, accountability, authenticity, growth. As Christmas nears, maybe our communities can offer graceful gatherings in distinctive ways, so that if you and I were thinking of inviting someone to be part of church, we’d have good reason to do so.
A vision for a church I’d want to join:
(courtesy of St. Paul, from the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Romans)
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
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